Americana Fest: Justin Townes Earle Goes to Church
Justin Townes Earle -- Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Justin Townes Earle — Erika Goldring/Getty Images

With a huge pipe organ serving as his backdrop and the very last light of the day fading through stained glass, Justin Townes Earle closed the Communion showcase at Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church on Thursday evening (Sept. 19) as part of the 2013 Americana Music Festival’s second day.

“I know, I’m in a church, sorry,” joked the singer-songwriter after letting slip a cussword between songs. “But I haven’t been in a church in 20 years, so …”

Such was Earle’s mood — confident onstage, an effortless showman and maybe a bit overly honest.

The space itself also oozed charisma. Constructed in the mid-19th century, the church sanctuary is uniquely decorated in an Egyptian-revival motif. Giant pillars behind the pulpit are embellished with geometric patterns and earthy colors, and all around the room are images of wings and more patterns. Even the stained glass windows feature images of palm trees and sand dunes.

Obviously not designed with the needs of modern concerts in mind, the space had a booming quality to it that, while not perfectly suited to amplified sound, was delightful if only for its cool factor.

With his equally one-of-a-kind guitar style — fingerpicking and slapping the strings in the same motion — Earle led his “congregation” without a supporting band but still filled the worship space with sound and energy.

He offered up two new songs and hinted he’d be recording a new album soon. One of those songs was an instant standout. It featured the clever turn of phrase:

“I worry about the weather/Whether or not you’re gonna love me.”

Familiar tunes like the slurred bad-apple theme “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” also stood out, along with “Am I That Lonely Tonight,” “Memphis in the Rain” and “They Killed John Henry.”

Before finishing up, he left the crowd with one more wink and a nod. The crowd laughed uneasily.

“There’s nothing I love more than leaving everyone behind and getting out on my own,” Earle said, explaining that he’d be starting a drive to Salt Lake City that night. “’Cuz there’s a lot of people these days that can kiss my ass.”

Just before Earle, Brooklyn-based folk trio the Lone Bellow ran through a set that had them sounding like a roots-music choir in the hallowed hall. With resonating three-part harmonies, they moved the early crowd to a full standing ovation by the end.

With hands clapping and Kanene Pipkin taking lead vocals, their performance of “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To” injected the first real energy of the evening into the audience and kept them up through the hard rocking “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold.”

By the time the band reached their closing number “Carried Away,” the crowd was singing along and each member of the band was drenched in sweat.

Portland, Ore.-based folk rockers Black Prairie kicked off the show, offering a diverse musical bag of tricks that included Gypsy-flavored instrumentals, a Romanian horn/violin song and a cover of Kansas’ “Carry on Wayward Son.”

“It’s nice to be at such a civilized venue at such a civilized time of day,” teased bass player Nate Query. “Don’t y’all work?”

The delicate “Nowhere, Massachusetts” suited the room perfectly.

Also on the bill was Bear’s Den, a banjo-driven trio from the U.K. with lush, full-bodied harmonies and melodic, fingerpicked guitar, and Willy Mason, whose laid-back and unhurried baritone led songs tinted with country soul and spooky, backwater blues.

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